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5 Ways Caregivers Can Help Someone Traveling Through the Darkness of Mental Illness

Anxiety and panic disorders can be difficult to deal with. Your stomach might become so tight that you can’t take a deep breath and there might be a low level hum inside you that distracts you from all the things you’re supposed to accomplish. You could feel like you vaguely have the flu almost every day. It’s difficult if you’re the person dealing with these symptoms, but it is equally difficult to stand by and watch someone you love struggle.

Here is a list, based on my experience, for the loved ones and caregivers trying to help those who are traveling through the darkness of mental illness.

1. Help them friend find the right doctor.

The help I received ranged from the absurd to the sublime. I had an easy, comfortable relationship with a therapist I had seen for years. My decline into panic left him as perplexed as I was, and I found it difficult to find someone else to help me. One doctor told me, “Just be grateful you don’t have cancer.” Another doctor took out a blonde haired doll and said, “Pretend this is you as a child. What would you like your younger self to hear?”

Both techniques have merit and may have been helpful for some, but these approaches were completely unsuitable for me. Yes, it was intimidating to start over with a new therapist. I came up with all sorts of excuses: I didn’t want to tell the whole story of my decline over and over, I didn’t want to travel too far from home, I’m comfortable with my first therapist and he helped me in the past. Because it will almost always take no more than 20 minutes to recount your journey with mental illness. And I don’t care how far from home the right doctor is, they will treat you, find a solution and your appointments will become fewer and fewer as you get better and better. And just because a beloved physician has helped you in the past, doesn’t mean they should be expected to treat every disorder. If your mental health changes, find a specialist to treat that particular illness. This is where having an army of caregivers is helpful because they can make the appointments and can make sure you keep them.

2. Make them comfortable, but not too comfortable. 

At my worst, I was incapable of leaving the house to go grocery shopping. Getting downstairs to do the laundry was an insurmountable task. Helping your friend with household chores and maintenance could be helpful.

Conversely, some of the most growth and healing I experienced was when I was left on my own. For instance, I became accustomed to having my husband drive me to the hospital for therapy three days a week. The day that he gently explained that he had an important meeting at work and he couldn’t take me was the day I got back behind the wheel of a car. It was dreadfully uncomfortable. My heart raced as I gripped the wheel and an invisible dark force wanted me to turn around, go home and retreat back to the safety of my bed. But I didn’t give in to the darkness. I knew the hospital was helping me and I simply had to get there. The pride I felt when I made it there and back home on my own gave me a tremendous amount of confidence. Slowly, I regained the ability to go out by myself. If you stick to what’s easy and comfortable, you’ll never grow. This applies to fitness, education and recovery from mental illness.

3. Text and email are better than phone calls.

I can’t tell you the number of times I hit the “decline” button on my phone when it rang. This is an example of the polarity of mental illness: I wanted to be left alone, but I didn’t want to feel alone. Friends: don’t take this personally. While I wasn’t up for a conversation, I loved hearing the text message ding, I loved reading that you were thinking of me and I wanted to hear all the things happening in your life.

4. Suggest activities with minimal interaction.

The thought of sitting and conversing over coffee exhausted me. Any face to face time made me feel like I had to seem OK, even though I wasn’t. I felt pressure to talk and smile even though my insides were shaking and my head was heavy with worry. A movie, on the other hand, is the perfect excuse to get out of the house and involves little or no mental exertion. Being in a dark theater next to someone who cares for me, swept away in a story for 90 minutes, was just the break my overwrought brain needed.

5. Re-label.

I firmly believe that children live up to the labels we use to describe them, and adults are no different. It was easy and comfortable to live up to the description on my medical chart: “suffers from severe panic and generalized anxiety disorder.” As accurate as the word “suffers” is, that’s not how I wanted to be defined. Time for a re-label.

While I’d love to see a description of me like: “hard-ass motherfucker, physically and emotionally robust,” I’ll settle for something along the lines of: “tires easily but is responsible, dependable and kind.” Pick a few words that describe your friend and remind them that that’s who they are. They will live up to your label.

Battling any illness is exhausting, and caring for those who are struggling can take a real toll on the caregiver. Don’t take anything personally and be as good to yourself as you are to the person you love.

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Thinkstock photo via Maria Teijeiro 

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